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Stokt of a Famous Book;
DE. BENJAMIN FKANKLIN'S AUTOBIOGEAPHT.
SAMUEL A. GEEEN, M.D.
FOR PEIVATE DISTRIBUTION.
The following article originally appeared in the
"Atlantic Monthly" for February of this year, under
the title of " The Story of a Famous Book." A small
edition is now reprinted, with the consent of the pub-
lishers of that magazine, for a few friends of the
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THE STOEY OF A FAMOUS BOOK.
It is now eighty years since the death of Dr. Franklin, and
during this time his Autobiography has been more extensively
i-ead in this country than any other historical work. It was,
perhaps, the earliest American book that acquired and sustained
a great popularity. Other books may have had a greater local
or temporary success, hut to this one alone belonged a general
and permanent reputation. There have been written many
Lives of Washington, but none of them is to be compared in
style and interest with the charming production of the great
philosopher. Its history as a book has been so eventful, that it
may be of sufficient interest to give some of its bibliographical
details. The narrative was written at different times and places,
and Pranklin himself has given the circumstances under which
he prepared it.
The first part, coming down to his marriage, in 1730, was
written at Twyford, England, in 1771. while he was visiting
the family of Dr. Jonathan Sheple^, the Bishop of St. Asaph,
with whom he was on terms of dose intimacy ind friendship.
Franklin, as it might be expected fiom hii mquiiing mind, took
a deep interest in the genealogy of his famil}, and while in
England made a journey with his son foi the puipose of finding
out the history of his ancestors. The result of this trip is
given in this portion of the memoirs of his life. The room in
which it was wi-ittcn was afterwards known as "Dr. Franklin's
room," Tho sketch was began for the gratification of his own
family, and intended for them alone, but afterwards it took a
wider scope, and was evidently meant for publication. It was
not until 1784 that he resumed work upon it, and in the mean
time it had been shown to some of his friends. Three of them
in particular — Benjamin Vaughan, Abel James, and M. Le
Veillard — made sti-ong appeals to him to go on with it. Mr.
Vaoghan's letter urging him to do so is dated January 31,
1783, and had considerable influence on his tatting up again the
story of his life, which he did the next year.
The second part of his memoirs, written while he was living
at Fassy, near Paris, ia short, and made up mainly of his ideas
on the philosophy of life, rather than the recital of events.
When Franklin began the second part at Fassy, he says that he
did not have with him what had already been written. It
might have been left at his home in Philadelphia after hie
return from England in 1775. This supposition seems plausi-
ble, for he would not have mentioned the fact if the manusci-ipt
had been lent temporarily to some friend or neighbor at Fassy.
The third part was begun in August, 1788, while Franklin
was at home in Fhiladeiphia, and is brought down to 1757,
This portion ends the Autobiography, as it is always printed,
except in the edition of the Hon. John Bigelow, which we shall
have occasion to notice before the close of this article. Franklin
writes to Mr. Vaughan ; " To shorten the work, as well as for
other reasons, I omit all facts and transactions that may not have
■ a tendency to benefit the young reader, by showing him, from
my example, and my success in emerging from poverty and
acquiring some degree of wealth, power, and reputation, the
advantages of certain modes of conduct which I observed, and
of avoiding the errors which were prejudicial to me."
At the end of Mr. Eigelow's edition is a fourth part, consist-
ing of a few pages, written in 1789, and not to be found else-
where in English. These are rather of a political character,
and bring the memoirs down a year later, when they close. It
was Franklin's intention, as may be' inferred from his letters, to
continue them further, and perhaps to the end of his life ; but
during his last few years he suifered acutely, and much of the
time was hardly in a condition to write for recreation or pleas-
ure, to say nothing of his preoccupation with the public duties
which pressed heavily upon him.
Immediately after Dr. Franklin's death, in 1790, the first
portion of the memoirs was published in French, at Paris. It
is a singular fact that this work, which was destined to have so
great a popularity, should first see the light in a foreign land
and in a foreign tongue. It has never been satisfactorily ex-
plained how or why this was so. It is not even certainly known
who made the translation from the English into the French. It
has been suggested that the translation might have been made
from the copy which Franklin promised Mr. Vaughan, in a
letter dated June 3, 1789. He there says that his grandson
is copying the memoirs for his old friend. If this copy was sent,
as is probable, although its existence is now unknown, it should
have contained the whole memoirs, and the Fi'ench version
would have been full and complete. It has been said that M.
Le Veillard was the translator, but he distinctly denies the
statement, and furthermore declares that he is utterly ignorant
of the manner in which the translator procured the copy. It is
known that M. Le Veillard's copy contained the whole Auto-
biography, which makes it almost certain by circumstantial
evidence that this was not the one from which the translation
was made. According to the " Nouvelle Biographic Gt^n^rale "
(Paris, 1858), it was translated by Dr. Jaques Gibeliu, who is
spoken of in this dictionary as " a physician, naturalist, and
French translator." He was an experienced ti^anslator of Eng-
lish, and moreover it is said that he had had the original ' manu-
script in his possession. If this he true, it is veiy probable that
he was the person who made it, and he may have \ised a copy
vvhich was obtained surreptitiously, although we have no knowl-
edge of such a one. At any rate, a copy might easily have been
made at anytime between 1771, when the first part was written.
and 1784, when the second part was began, for we know that
the manuscript had been shown to different persona, and some
of Franklin's friends had read it. The translator, whoever he
was, states in the Preface that he had a copy of the original
manuscript in his possession, though he should not give the
details — of no importance to his readers — how it came into
his hands. This statement would rather imply either a slight
irregularity in the manner of his obtaining it, which he did not
wish to make known, or a complication of circumstances which
it might not be easy to explain to his readers. He furthermore
states that the portion in his possession only comprises the first
part of Franklin's life, and this is all that was printed. The
supposition seems fair that he made a copy, probably unknown
to Franklin or perhaps forgotten by him. A note is added to
the Preface of this French edition, requesting those who would
like to read the Life of Franklin in English to send tlieir names
to the publisher, and that it would be put to press as soon as
four hundred subscribers should be obtained. It ia probable
that this number was never secured, as the edition was never
In 1793, two years after its publication in Paris, two separate
and distinct translations of it were published in London, — the
one by the Messrs. Bobinson, and the other by Mr. J. Parsons.
It seems a little strange that this should have been -so, particu-
larly as they appeared from the press about the same time.
Perhaps a rivalry between two publishing firms, as sometimes
happens in our days, was at the bottom of it. Probably the
Pobinsons' edition appeai'ed first. Both were noticed in the
" Monthly Review " for 1794 (Vol. XIII. p. 304). ^Ye ai-e
unable to give the names of the translators. The Robinsons'
edition was edited with more care and is a better ti-anslation
than the other. There is some slight reason for supposing that
the editor had access to the original manuscript, possibly the
one lent to Mr. Vaughan ; though if this were so, it Avould be
difficult to explain why he did not print the original draft, and
the whole of it. Possibly the owner would not allow it. For
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instance, in the French version Franklin states that he sailed
from Graveaend on the day of July, 1726, and arrived in
Philadelphia on the day of October following. These
blanks are correctly filled up in the edition of the Robinsons,
with dates that agree with those in the original manuscript,
while in Pai'sons's edition they are left unfilled. From this it
would seem not improbable that the translator of the former
had seen an original copy.
A few slight inaccuracies are also corrected, such as Sooper's
Creek for Cooper's Creek, near Philadelphia, where Franklin
passed a night with his companions on his first visit to the city.
The ti-anslator of Parsons's edition speaks of a " school of nata-
tion," which is an expression that an Anglo-Saxon would hardly
use. lie also makes a singular blunder in calling one of the
ballads that Franklin wrote in his boyhood the " Tragedy of
Pharaoh." None would recognize under this title the little
song which was known as " The Lighthouse Tragedy." The
explanation of this droll mistake is found in the fact that the
word for " lighthouse " used in the French copy was Phare.
The Robinsons' edition has been republished many times in
this country and in England, and was the only one in either
country, till Franklin's grandson, William Temple Frankhn,
published his grandfather's Works in London, the second volume
in 1817, the 6rst and third volumes hi 1818. (The Life ap-
peared in the first volume.) Even since 1818 the Robinsons'
translation has passed through many editions, and has often
been mistaken for the genuine Autobiography, though it was in
a great measure superseded by the grandson's copy, which had
the apparent stamp of authority.
It is, in fact, an English translation from a French translation
of the original English. It has never to our knowledge fallen
to the lot of any book to pass through such a series of changes
as happened to this ; and yet, with the drawback of these
changes, it has been as charming as a novel to readers of all
ages. Besides its fascinafion, it is fjiJXof J_h^tjBound sense and
practical wisdom which, were so characteristic of its author.
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called the fourth portion of the Autobiography, which appears
in English in Mr. Bigelow's edition only. The fifth and last
is the version of M. Laboulaye, which appeared in 1866, and
followed Mr. Sparks's edition. These five editions were all
published in Paris.
M. Laboulaye speaks of still another that was printed in
Paris in 1841, which was "a now translation from the last
edition published in New York." Wc have never seen this
Those who have not read the Autobiography since their
childhood we should advise to read it anew. It will be found
to have charms that few hooks possess, besides giving an insight
into the iniluences that shaped Franklin's character, and showing
the motives that guided him through life. The book has passed
through many editions among all civilized nations, and the
demand for it still continues.
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